Critical Concepts

Point of View:

"Objective Narration"
"Omniscient Narration"
"Reliable Narration"

These are not synonymous terms when used in the technical sense we are trying to get acquainted with.

Remember that terms like "objective point of view" and "selective omniscience" are part of a technical vocabulary that has grown up within a particular discipline (in this case, literary criticism).  This means we have to be careful in relating the concepts they convey to the connotations the terms or phrases would have if we were to encounter them without any particular history, in everyday discourse.   

The same would go, for example, for the term "work," as used in physics.  Most of us are surprised to learn that, in physics, a person who has been holding a great weight up for some time, without allowing it to move in the slightest, has done no work, whereas a person who falls down a hill and dislodges a boulder has done work! 

Everyday meanings are starting points that suggest the initial proposal of a technical vocabulary.  But the latter will often amount to a figurative use of the former, "stretching" or "cutting back on" the reference of the everyday term by way of metaphor or metonymy.  This means thinking of everyday connotations when we encounter a technical term is a good start, and a helpful “mnemonic” (memory crutch).  But we have to be careful to check just how far we can go with projecting the everyday notions into the technical sense of the term. 

In prevailing literary critical parlance, both the terms objective narrator and omniscient narrator are reserved for non-participant voices.  And the term "non-participant," in turn, means simply "not embodied in a fictional character who exists in a time and space continuous with that of the characters involved in the action."  The term reliable narrator (like its counterpart unreliable narrator) is used to describe participant narrators — i.e., characters (whether central or marginal to the story’s main action) who tell us a story.  

From this information, see if you can deduce why the following theorems are true if we are using the italicized terms above within the technical discourse of literary criticism.

(When I say "deduce as theorems" I mean to proceed as we do in geometry, a strictly conceptual discipline, working from definitions, axioms, and rules of inference, but not with any empirical content, i.e., any information derived through the experience our senses afford us about the behavior of the outside world, whether social or natural.  Applications, on the other hand, involve relating theorems to the world of contingent concrete experience.  Here the experience is hypothetical, in this case because it is imagined as fictional.)

Theorem 1:  It is contradictory to say of a narrator that he is "omniscient" and that "the narrator is a townsperson" in the town in which the action takes place. 

Theorem 1a:  A fictional narrator who presents a story she reconstructs from documentary materials she collects (of her great-grandmother's life as a settler in Nebraska, or [say] of a strike a hundred years ago in some other country than her own, etc.) is not an "objective narrator," no matter how objectively she proceeds according to the practices that govern responsible procedure as a professional historian.

Theorem 2:  "Objectivity" of narration and "reliability" of narration are not synonymous terms.

Application:  “The narrator of Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily’ comes across, on reflection, as reliable, in part because of his objectivity in reporting events and in understanding the agents in the primary action of the story.”

Comment:  Note that in this statement the term “objectivity” is used in one of the everyday senses, whereas “reliability” is being used in the technical literary-critical sense.  And note that the term “objective” carries a troublesome array of different meanings even in everyday discourse!  Hence we might have been even more informative if we had substituted for “objective” here some more exact equivalent of the specific meaning we had in mind.  Example:  “The narrator of Faulkner's story comes across, on reflection, as reliable, in part because of his evenhandedness and broad sympathy.  He is able to imagine the different mentalities of Emily, her father, and Homer Baron, and to understand, in a sympathetic way, how these are conditioned by their individual histories — their social backgrounds in confrontation with the particular circumstances in which they find themselves.”  Comment:  Note that this kind of sympathetic understanding does not necessarily entail that the person who has it endorses or condones what he understands.  Another aspect of the "objectivity" of the narrator — a different sense in everyday use! — is this kind of "balance" in maintaining his own ethical perspective while being able to enter into, and examine "from the inside," ethical perspectives alien to his own.

Theorem 3:  "Omniscient narration" is not "objective narration."  Nor does one entail the other.  In fact, these are mutually exclusive terms:  if we have one, we do not have the other.

Comment 1:  In perfectionist monotheistic theologies (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam), however, God is presumed to be omniscient and omnibenevolent, and therefore "objective" in two distinct everyday senses of the term "objective.”  (1) His vision encompasses every concrete aspect of reality, and understands every partial point of view within the system under His contemplation.  And (2) his will always accords with what is right and wrong independently of any distorting "prejudice."  But neither "omniscience" nor "objectivity" in narration is absolute in either of these senses.)  — at least insofar as the narrators we have to do with are human or, in rare cases, humanoid (robots, gods within a polytheistic framework, animals).  

In literary-critical jargon, the term limited omniscient (or selective omniscient) is not self-contradictory, since the constituent term omniscient (in this sense) does not literally mean “all-knowing.”  (If it did, a phrase like “limited omniscient” would have to mean “knowing everything but not knowing everything.)  “Omniscience” in this special sense means only having something of the kind of “inside view” of a character’s private experience that (in perfectionist monotheistic theologies) God is presumed to have of everyone’s private thoughts and feelings.  But the omniscience theologians assert of God goes far beyond this.  He is said to know everything that ever happened, both in respect of inanimate natural processes and within every conscious being’s consciousness, as well as everything that ever will happen.  The phrase “limited omniscient” in literary-critical talk simply refers to the knowledge that a narrator has who exhibits knowledge of only a single character’s, or a few characters’ private thoughts and feelings.  Moreover, theologians postulate of God that he is aware not only of what we think or feel yet hide from others, but of what we manage to hide from ourselves.  But even a “fully omniscient narrator” (in the sense of one who gives us an inside view of every character in the fiction) may not go so far as to afford explicit access into the characters’ unconscious fantasies, desires, fears.  These we may have to infer for ourselves, from what we are explicitly given of a character’s conscious experience.  (On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent an author from constructing a narrator who does from time to time tell us things that are going on in the inner life of some character that the character himself remains in the dark about.)

Comment 2:  In literary critical jargon, when we speak of objective narration, we mean only that the (non-participant) narrator does not give the reader any direct report of any character’s private experience, but instead tells the reader only those sorts of facts that could be observed by an “outside observer.”  For this reason, if an author has decided on a strategy of “objective narration” (in this special sense of the term!), then she has rejected a strategy of “omnisicient narration,” whether “limited” or not.

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  This page last updated 05 March 2002.